What’s changed?

On April 24, 2013, a five-story garment factory called Rana Plaza in the Dhaka district of Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,100 workers and injuring 2,500 more – the worst garment industry accident of all time. Though the sheer scale of that horrific day kept it in the headlines for longer than usual, it largely receded from the mainstream media’s consciousness, except for the occasional anniversary look-back, like several that are out today.

rana-plaza-memorial

I remember shortly after the accident, some of the knee-jerk reactions I heard from industry insiders and even some well-meaning consumers. “Made in Bangladesh” had become toxic, just like “Made in China” had been a decade and a half earlier when the Kathy Lee Gifford clothing scandal erupted.

A well-intentioned consumer may reason that if she or he stops buying things made in Bangladesh, it will punish the exploiters and force them to change their ways.

But that is absolutely the wrong approach. People in Bangladesh (and China and everywhere) need jobs and fair pay and safe working conditions. Boycotts, as good as they may feel to join on Twitter or Facebook, are mostly destructive in cases like this. All they really do is incentivize companies to move their production to a country that’s not in the headlines, leaving the exploited workers now jobless too. This is exactly what happened. 150,000 workers lost their jobs in the months after Rana Plaza. Victims of companies choosing the less painful option (leaving) instead of the right option (staying and fixing).

Some progress has been made in Bangladesh. But not enough. This PBS Newshour clip does a pretty good job of summarizing where we are five years later.

We can’t be naive enough to believe all of our clothing is going to be made in small family-owned workshops and cooperatives like Fair Indigo’s fair trade clothing is. In a world of seven billion people, there needs to be scale. There needs to be large companies and big production facilities in addition to the small ones that may capture our hearts, but can’t come close to clothing the world.

Fashion Revolution is a great one stop shop for all things related to improving the garment industry. There is no easy solution. It’s going to take thousands and millions of us asking our favorite brands what they are doing to improve working conditions in Bangladesh and elsewhere. Brands do listen to their customers on matters of style and trends. They’ll listen on conscience too if enough of us demand it.

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